Text messages from the dead

Welcome to your social afterlife.
Long after you're gone, you can still send your loved ones birthday greetings, jokes and even grandma's secret chocolate chip cookie recipe you promised to take to the grave, thanks to post-mortem digital communication services. (Philip Street/CBC)

by Danielle Nerman, CBC Calgary

Religion, folklore and film are riddled with stories of the dead trying to communicate with the living. 

Technology has solved this problem, too.

"To communicate on your behalf many, many years after you're no longer here and make sure that your legacy is being presented to different people in different ways as you choose," says Moran Zur, founder of SafeBeyond.
Moran Zur

How it works

SafeBeyond is an app that allows people to record text, audio and video messages throughout their life and store them in a heavily encrypted "digital vault."

From a final farewell to a corny joke or a grandmother's highly coveted chocolate chip cookie recipe, SafeBeyond will send messages on behalf of its clients for up to 25 years after they die.

Users schedule the messages to be released to their loved ones. Moran says many choose to do so on birthdays or on the first anniversary on their passing.

But messages can also be sent for events that would have been unforeseen to the dead — like a wedding or the birth of a child. To make that happen, the departed must appoint a trustee who will let SafeBeyond know when those significant life events happen.

After the user dies, recipients are emailed a notification telling them to download the app so that they can, one day, receive a message from the grave.

SafeBeyond charges $47.88 to $95.88 per year for its services.

Advice from the afterlife

Moran hatched the idea for SafeBeyond more than a decade ago, after his own father passed away.

"He was a man of advice, and I couldn't hear his advice anymore," he says.
'He was a man of advice and I couldn't hear his advice anymore.' (Moran Zur)
"I realized that I never discussed with my father … what will be the key for a successful marriage or about raising the kids and all that stuff because it wasn't relevant at the time." 

But it wasn't until 2012, when his wife was diagnosed with brain cancer, that Moran began to seriously consider creating a company that could save and store memories — worried his son, then two years old, might "never get to know his mom."

Though his wife has since recovered, the fear of losing her prompted him to quit his day job as the CEO of a brokerage firm and begin developing SafeBeyond.

About 25,000 people have signed up for SafeBeyond since it launched in 2015 and are actively squirreling away content.

Most users are from Canada and the U.S., with a handful of early adopters from Israel, Taiwan, Singapore, Brazil and Colombia. There are more women than men using the platform.

Digital diary

Julia Rivard Dexter, a former Canadian Olympic sprint kayaker and the co-founder of a company that develops video games to help children read, was an early adopter.
Julia Rivard Dexter

​When she heard Moran's personal story behind SafeBeyond, it moved her to tears: "Right away, I felt compelled to sign up and try it out so I could save some of my memories and thoughts for my children since I spent so much time away from home."

Julia has already stowed many video messages away in her SafeBeyond vault. She says she's building a "digital diary" for her kids to look back on when she's gone.

"And that doesn't have to be associated with death. I think it really can just be a digital record-keeping of your life. I think if people see it that way, it doesn't have to be a sad experience."

Keep tweeting when your heart stops beating

With clever names like GhostMemoMyGoodbyeMessage and Dead Man's Switch, there are about 40 companies offering services to people who want to be active online after they die. These types of sites have been popping up and disappearing for the past few years. 

Despite their ephemeral nature, these companies all have one thing in common — to make death a part of our daily interactions online.

Paula Kiel
"In Western society, we are accustomed to think about death as something that is only to be dealt with in very specific and confined times and place," says Paula Kiel, who has been researching this phenomenon for her PhD at the London School of Economics. "And what these websites are doing is to challenge that perception and try to bring everydayness to death."

Essentially, they're banking on a belief that in the future, receiving a message from the dead will be as normal as replying to an email, commenting on a Facebook post or uploading a beach selfie to Instagram.

But what if the living don't want to hear from the dead?

Digital dilemma

Paula says it's possible that messages from beyond could interrupt the process of grieving a loved one.

"Because then the control over when and how I remember that person is no longer in my hands. The deceased actually has some control over how I might remember them."

There's also a risk that people could use post-mortem digital communication to reveal secrets or send hurtful messages.

Paula knows of a case where a user took her own life and "left emails for all of her friends and family blaming them for her suicide. And that was very, very painful." 

Paula says that "unless it's something illegal," there are really no rules about what type of content you can send to someone through one of these digital afterlife services.

But Moran says SafeBeyond has already thought of that.

"We don't push the message. You'll get notification that a new message has been released for you, but you have to log in and watch it," he says.

"If they think that there is a nasty message left to them, they can just decide not to go and read it. At the end of the day, it's their decision."